I recently took a class about listening as part of an internal education program at work. For one of the activities, the instructor had us partner up and tell each other a story about a personal experience. She gave us some rules: Each person has three minutes to tell their story. Include as much detail as possible, and keep talking until the alarm goes off. When you’re listening, you’re not allowed to say anything or ask questions. You also have to sit on your hands, so your whole body is focused on one thing.
When we finished describing our personal experiences, we took turns reciting the stories back to each other. The goal, of course, was to see how much you can retain when you’re completely focused on hearing what your partner is sharing with you.
It seemed like an awkward classroom exercise at first, but I was amazed. I listened so intently. I remembered details. I noticed facial expressions. I was able to recite the whole story back and describe how my partner felt at the time. I probably won’t forget what he told me for a long time. And now I have a new friend at work.
I’m always busy and often distracted while I’m at the office. I glance at my watch during conversations and make to-do lists during meetings. I fidget when I’m stressed. I try to do two things at once. While another person is talking, I think about what I’m going to say next. The “sit on your hands” exercise made me realize I was a pretty crummy listener.
I’m trying to listen more generously. I want to truly hear what people have to say, but it’s more than that—I want to make people feel heard. It’s so nice to have someone look you in the eye and give you their undivided attention.
I’m not going to start sitting on my hands in meetings, but it’s a good reminder: When someone else is talking, listen. Only listen.